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China May Have Just Condemned The Entire World
A crucial shift in rhetoric from the superpower is deeply worrying.
We are rapidly approaching the Dubai COP28 summit, and there is anticipation that something massive could happen. A growing movement is calling for a fossil fuel phase-out plan to be signed at COP28 to ensure we will actually meet our goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Hopes have been high that such a revolutionary and planetary-scale deal is on the table. But China recently dashed this hope and showed that they aren’t willing to give up the dino juice just yet, and in doing so, may have condemned the world to a climate catastrophe. Let me explain.
During a recent speech in Beijing, China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, had some worrying things to say about the future of China’s energy industry. He said that “completely eliminating fossil energy is not realistic,” sitting its reliance on the weather and stating that “fossil fuels should serve as a flexible and back — up energy source when technologies such as large-scale energy storage, electric power transmission, smart grids, microgrids are not yet fully mature.” He went on to say that emissions from these fossil fuel power stations can be offset by carbon capture and storage systems. This resonates with COP28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al-Jaber, who says the world needs to reduce fossil fuel emissions rather than fossil fuels themselves.
Let’s not forget the backdrop here. 2022 and 2023 were the first years the global community saw the devastating impact of climate change, and it has deeply spooked them. As such, major players such as the UN, IEA, the EU, and 17 countries are now calling for an international phase-out of fossil fuels to be agreed as soon as possible.
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The place where such an agreement can be made and enacted is COP28. While it is worrying that the summit is headed by someone with a profound conflict of interest (since his wealth comes from oil), they don’t have the political power in this environment, so they aren’t a huge concern. However, China is the world’s biggest polluter, and as such, they hold a massive sway in these meetings as they set the tone and direction. Sadly, Zhenhua’s speech hints that China is not yet willing to let go of the planet-destroying black gold yet, and as such, the pressure on the rest of the world to give it up is dramatically reduced. This means the legislation to save our dying planet, which is already years too late, will be delayed yet again. Zhenhua’s stance isn’t just words either, as China is rapidly expanding its coal power industry, but more on that in a minute.
But is Zhenhua’s stance correct? Are we unable to give up fossil fuels yet? And can we rely on carbon capture instead?
The short answer is no.
Let’s start off with the easy one: carbon capture. I have covered this in my previous article, Can Carbon Capture Save The Oil Industry? So if you want to read about this in detail, go there. But basically, verifiable and scalable carbon capture is too expensive and has too small of a capacity to be a viable alternative to decarbonisation. Even if carbon capture has been scaled, and the price per kg stored drops to the lowest possible cost, this would still be the case. Carbon capture should only be used to offset the emissions we categorically can’t reduce, and used as the last little nudge to get us to net-zero. So, statements that carbon capture can make up for an entire country’s inability to move on from fossil fuels are massively misleading.
This is why a 2021 IEA report found that we needed to stop fossil fuel expansion immediately to meet net-zero by 2050, as carbon capture can’t make up for the use of fossil fuels.
Okay, so what about Zhenhua’s claim that we can’t have a 100% renewable energy grid and need to rely on fossil fuel as a backup?
Well, energy grids do indeed need to change drastically to run on 100% renewable energy. Grid-level energy storage, intelligent energy management and super-efficient transmission lines are required to make a fully renewable energy grid work. But these are all technologies that we already have and widely use. A recent analysis by 23 scientists worldwide concluded that the globe can switch to a 100% renewable energy system by or before 2050 with current technology. In fact, there are a plethora of research papers from across the globe using different methodologies that agree that a 100% renewable energy infrastructure is possible.
But, even if this were true, Zhenhua’s claims are still flawed, as nuclear power is the best technology to back up renewables. It has a far quicker startup time, way higher capacity, is far more efficient, has just as low emissions as renewables, and is incredibly safe. What’s more, when not being used to power the grid, it can make pink hydrogen, a potentially game-changing fuel. There is also a plethora of cheap and safe SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) coming to market, which are ideal for this very use. There are even fast reactors coming soon that recycle nuclear waste to extract more energy and make nuclear waste even safer.
So why is Zhenhua taking this stance when the scientific consensus doesn’t agree with him? This becomes even more perplexing when you realise that China has a near monopoly on renewable technology manufacturing and is a crucial player in nuclear construction.
Well, I think I might know, and it is a little depressing. Money.
To understand this, we have to take a few steps back. Over the past few years, China has built an insane amount of coal power plants. In 2022, the coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined, and that trend has continued into 2023. Now, remember here that coal is twice as polluting per kWh as gas and 166 times more polluting than renewables. This is why many Western countries are phasing it out, and why many climate scientists say coal needs to be phased out altogether within 15 years or so in order to meet our climate targets. But these Chinese coal plants have a lifespan of 40+ years, and as shutting them down early will cost an insane amount, they will likely still be in operation by 2050. The Chinese government has promised that its emissions will peak in 2030, but this coal expansion threatens our global ability to curb climate change.
But why is China building all this coal infrastructure? Their renewable and nuclear industry could have quickly built this capacity without pushing emissions up this much.
Well, China’s energy demands are growing dramatically, so they need to build a lot of capacity very, very quickly, which unfortunately rules out nuclear energy, as it takes well over a decade to construct nuclear power plants. This problem has been exacerbated by climate change, as the heat has caused droughts, which have significantly reduced China’s hydropower capacity, which used to provide a massive 16% of their energy needs.
China’s renewable industry is booming and already provides 50.9% of its energy, so why couldn’t it be used instead of these coal plants? Well, while renewable energy costs less, upfront investment is far more than for coal power, and China needs to be careful with its money right now.
China’s economy is not doing so well. Over the past few years, its growth has stagnated, its foreign investment has dried up, and exports are slowly shrinking. There is also a youth unemployment crisis and a looming property crisis that will make 2008 look like a breeze. It’s possible that China isn’t building more renewables to meet its growing demand, as the upfront investment might be too steep, and they need to bolster themselves for an economic storm.
So, it seems China is prioritising its own expansion and economy and going against the scientific consensus. If this was just one small country, this might not be a big deal, as it wouldn’t sway international climate legislation. But China isn’t a small country; they are a superpower other countries are forced to follow, whether they like it or not. As such, this could derail some of the most crucial climate legislation of the century. During COP28, we can’t let them get away with this false notion that coal expansion in 2023 is fine and that carbon capture can just be our safety net. This approach is insanely dangerous, irresponsible, immoral and just plain stupid. Hopefully, the international community can convince China of this; otherwise, we can say goodbye to net-zero, and a pleasant future on this planet.
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